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  • Lloyd Janzen

John Knox

There are certain points in life where we face the weight of life's circumstances that discourage and threaten to bring us to utter despair at times—even of life itself. No one is immune. The same is true for the Christian when their focus on Christ is blurred by an unhealthy preoccupation with the immediate trial, pain, suffering, or hardship of this earthly life. In those moments, we need the encouragement of other believers to bring our circumstances of life back into focus.

For the Christian, we not only have those living today, but also those who have gone before us to inspire and encourage us to live a life for the glory of God in every circumstance we face, despite our own weakness. Looking into the past at the lives of faithful men and women of God is similar to receiving the correct lenses into the frames of our lives, allowing us to see clearly again.

It continues to be uplifting, encouraging, motivating, and inspiring in my walk with the Lord as I look into the pages of history and study the lives of God's servants who have gone before us. I find that I am among friends. John Knox, in particular, has been that kind of a man in my life. May this brief article encourage you in your faith and service to God as we look at some lessons from the life of John Knox.

John Knox was born sometime between 1505-1514 in Haddington Scotland and died in 1572. Knox is known as the father or leader of the Scottish Reformation. Yet his beginnings were very simple. He was educated for the Catholic priesthood but was converted to Christ under the preaching of Thomas Guillaume.

John Knox was no different than us in the sense that he was known as a small and weak man. When he was first called to preach, he burst into tears and ran from the room. But if we study the life of Knox, we find that it is characterized far more by power and influence than by weakness. Knox is an example for the ordinary Christian, especially for those of us who see our own weakness but still want to serve Christ in our troubled world. If you have ever been forced to come face to face with your own smallness, there are great lessons to be learned from the life of this 16th-century Reformer.

Weakness, according to Paul is a requirement to be used by God. “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10 ESV).

What are some of the lessons we can learn from Knox?

John Knox believed that he had been personally called by God to preach the Word. He did not enter the pulpit lightly—just as a job to do. No, he was deeply convinced that he had been sovereignly called and appointed there by God. When he was first called to preach by the leaders of the church, he burst into tears and refused. Again, when he was publicly called in a worship service, he broke down in tears and withdrew to his room. After much soul searching, he came forward and accepted the call to be a pastor. The fact that he was called by God was what anchored and held him steady to the task God had called him to.

The power and strength of his preaching didn't lie within himself, but in his strong conviction that the Bible is the very Word of God. He wrote that the Bible is the "infallible and eternal truth of God."[1] He believed he must preach the Word exactly as it is written down in the Bible. His conviction that God speaks through His Word, the Bible, enabled Him to preach boldly. For when he preached the Bible, he was convinced that God was speaking through him if he rightly handled the Word.

John Knox was also very aware that as someone who handled the Word of God, he would give an account of himself to God. He preached with the reality that he would stand before God on the last day and give an answer for how he had handled the message entrusted to him. This reality gave him an unshakable boldness as he taught God’s Word before men and women. He feared God so much that he didn't fear any man.

John Knox was a man who boldly taught the absolute sovereignty of God over all things. He proclaimed God’s authority over creation, providence, salvation, and judgment. Because he believed God to be in control of every event in human history, he had great courage. He stood before Queens, Kings, and common people without fear as he gave them the truth of Scripture, because he believed that God is the ruler over all earthly rulers.

Knox regularly asked God to bless his preaching of the Word. He knew that the success of his ministry ultimately lay with God, not him. Knox was so powerfully used by God because he spent much time with God. He stood strong as a proclaimer of God because he had first kneeled low before God in prayer. Mary Queen of Scots once said, "I am more afraid of [Knox's] prayers than an army of ten thousand men."[2] Knox was a man of prayer.

His highest aim in preaching the Word of God was to preach the person and work of Jesus Christ. He claimed that he "labored with all his power to gain them to Christ."

Knox was imprisoned as a galley slave on a ship, exiled, and ordered not to preach by the archbishop of St. Andrews. Orders were given that he be shot on sight if he failed to comply. Knox didn't comply. He was shot at. But Knox still preached on.

How could John Knox boldly and courageously proclaim the truth in the face of so much opposition and hardships? The answer does not lie in himself, but in the Holy Spirit who lived within him. It was God within him who empowered him. Recognizing this, he said," God gave his Holy Spirit to simple men in great abundance."[3] When he was buried, the Earl of Morton said, "Here lies one who never feared or flattered any flesh."[4] And after his death, Thomas Smeaton said of him, "I know not if God ever placed a more godly and great spirit in a body so little and frail."[5]

We pray that God would send a new reformation to His church through the teaching and preaching of His Word. And if it is going to come, it will come through weak men and women like Knox, made strong through the power of the Holy Spirit, boldly proclaiming the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Church has to be preaching Christ, the only gospel, or how can we ever expect renewal to take place? We can draw strength and encouragement from men God used in the past, like Knox. But we are not here to celebrate and lift up a man; we're here to talk about a great sovereign God who changes lives through the powerful preaching and teaching of the Word.

Today, our communities are in of need of Christians who have convictions; convictions to live according to the Bible and the Bible alone; to receive Christ by faith and by faith alone. We need to know that salvation is by grace and by grace alone. Why? So that we can live to the Glory of God alone as this small and weak Reformer once did.

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31 ESV)

[1] Selected Writings of John Knox: Public Epistles, Treatises, and Expositions to the Year 1559

[2] John Knox: Fearless Faith, by Steven J. Lawson

[3] The Champion of the Kirk, by Sinclair Ferguson

[4] Immortal Last Words, by Terry Breverton

[5] The Scots worthies, revised by W.H. Carlaw, by John Howie

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